Eliza Carthy has a powerful stage presence. Even from the back of the large crowd watching her on the main stage, she pulls on the visceral connection. The feeling is hard to ignore or dismiss. We are caught between awe and fear, and a need to dance. The intensity of the performance fascinates. So, under the dappled sunlight of a forest clearing on an otherwise stormy day, we sat with Eliza to discover more.
“It’s hard to break down what I do, but essentially I am a folk singer. I play the violin and sing mainly english traditional music in contemporary settings. I come from a music family background, there are many generations on both sides who play music”.
As Eliza’s to reflect on the meanings of music and performance that have embodied her life
“Music is inexplicable in many ways. For some reasons humans need to do it but nobody knows why that is. For me it is celebration and catharsis. It is a way of making sense of the world, it is also a way of rejecting the sense of the world. You can be organisational in the way that you think about it, you can be completely disorganised about the way you think about it, some people don’t think about it at all and just throw themselves into it, it provides an escape for them. But, for me it provides a way for me to explain how I am feeling and how I think the world is feeling.
In performance I very much become someone else. It is a transportation. I have always had a point of expressing myself in my own accent, although that changes on who I am speaking to but I don’t know if it changes in who I am singing to, I don’t think so. My physicality has changed a lot over the last few years. When I was younger, I started singing professionally at the age of 13, I was very rigid and planted to the floor. These days there is a physical transportation that happens to me on stage, throwing various shapes, somewhere between dancing and posing that adds to the drama and my experience of the drama. I don’t know why I do it. If I could see someone else doing it I maybe wouldn’t want to do it myself, but I’ve always thrown myself around on stage. I enjoy rhythm and enjoy responding to that rhythm physically. “
Eliza then explored the stimulus to this physicality in more depth.
“I am in a different place now because the material that we are expressing at the moment is dark, poetic imagery. It’s quite brutal. One song is about Britain’s most prolific, unproven, serial killer – Mrs Amelia Dyer. She was a baby farmer in the 19th Century who took in the children of unwedded mothers and those who were too poor to look after their children. She was supposed to take care of them but instead she murdered and discarded them. Although she was convicted and executed for the murder of one child, it’s estimated that she killed 400 children. It’s scary stuff! So we have this huge band making very danceable music with profoundly emotional lyrics – my dancing, or stage physicality, emerges from and bonds with that. I just get in there. I love it.
The old ballad evokes anger and revenge in response to crimes beyond comprehension in an economy out of control.
‘It seems rather hard to run down a woman,
But this one was hardly a woman at all,
To make a fine living in ways so inhuman,
Carousing in comfort on poor girls’ downfall.‘
The figure of the violent woman contradicts societal performances of passive femininity. Dyer was the Myra Hindley of her time, a betrayal of motherly nurturing that confronts our expectations of women. Dyer murdered children by exploiting a business that thrived from the moral and economic subjugation of women. “Folk music is inherently political because it’s about people. It is storytelling. Without the politics you are missing something”
Eliza’s stage presence is awash with feeling, an explosion of vulnerable fury in the crucible of our times: sensitive, sensual, striking, and strong. For someone trying to express their sense of a world that is turning ever closer towards more brutal times, Eliza’s venture into dark poetics sadly reflects where we are currently living.
It is hard to discern whether the performance is a confidence and skill derived from experience and the creative freedoms of success, an escape away from the pressures of satisfying audience, or a shamanic consequence of rhythmic sound and spectacle. The contrivance of performance is left behind in planning and rehearsal. The Eliza Carthy talking to us beneath the trees is a travelling companion to the person transported by the music stage. During the journey they lose each other, but not entirely.
“You feel the audience reacting to you. When the whole crowd feel the same thing at the same time it’s like a beautiful collective sigh. I don’t do extended whipping up of the crowd in a call and response style. When I premier new material it’s hard because the audience are purely absorbing and they just take it in and don’t give you anything back because they are listening and paying attention, which is great, but in other ways as a performer you have to work three times as hard to present it to them because they are not responding. When everyone knows your stuff and they are singing things back, that is like a big collective cuddle, it’s a great thing. But I like to continue to challenge performance more so it’s a little bit more than that feeling.”
When we asked Eliza if she missed performing when she was not on tour, she returned to the theme of transportation between different aspects of herself
“Oh God yeah! I have been at home for two months, so even just rehearsing today I got a surprise as I remembered that I am a violinist. I had forgotten about that.” Then, laughing, she adds, “ I thought I was someone who cooked tea for my mum”
For dub poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, the transportation of performance requires control. One of his riders demands that his hotel room after a gig must have a toilet where he can watch Jeremy Kyle on the television. “I like to watch absolute nonsense to bring me down. Turn yourself on, but don’t forget to turn yourself off too”
As our interview came to an end, Eliza provided us with tangible examples of the start and end of the transportation process. She started by talking about the warm up.
“I have a 15 minute vocal warm up and then as a group we do another 15 minutes marching. There are series of movements you do that move every muscle. It looks ridiculous.”
At first sight it appears mundane, but when understood in context of the emotive physicality of the later performance, the humour provides bonding and stability for the evening’s journey.
Around Eliza’s neck hangs a small, silver-grey anchor. It appears to have life. The metal is worn perhaps from rubbing between fingers, a reflection of the time it has spent in contemplative company. An anchor who guides the wearer to a better destination.
“The anchor represents what I am. I am a traveller. A lot of the music that I sing is seafaring music, so it represents that too. It also holds me down a little bit, I need that.”
Where do performers go when the song’s finished?
Eliza laughs loud “To the pub!”
Interview by Daniel Levin, and Jonathan Newman